Will using expired drugs kill you?

Wow, really important information!
It refers to the the U.S. military’s Shelf Life Extension Program, which could be a really valuable resource for people on limited means, who could keep using medicines that are still good, but labeled ‘out of date’.
However, access to this site is restricted to government agencies only!
I am OUTRAGED that a program like this, done with our dollars, is not available to those who most need it!

Welcome to the Straight Dope Message Board, jimarnett! Just so you know, it is customary to provide a link to the column in question, like so.

The article addresses how much money that is spent on medications, which could be saved by way of more realistic “expiration” dates. Apparently, people are throwing out a lot of medication because they haven’t used it, and then eventually it’s "expired.’

But often, even if it had no expiration date, they stopped needing, so they would have thrown it out anyway, abiding by the credo that absolutely under no circumstances whatsoever can one person use medication that is in a bottle with someone else’s name on it.

Which most of the time is a total waste. Perhaps there’s no way around it, but it’s not like those pills have a specific person’s name engraved on them. But if I have half a bottle of some ordinary, common prescription medicine that I don’t need anymore–and my friend has been prescribed the exact same thing, in the same dose, etc.–there’s not way I can give it to him. Because the default assumption is that I’m so stupid that I can’t figure out whether it’s safe or not to do so.

I dispose of my medicine and he goes to the pharmacy and pays $200 for the exact same thing I just disposed of. Well, we know who’s happy about that.

Of course, I hope everyone knows that if the prescription drugs in question are a prescribed course of antibiotics, taking them only until you “stopped needing” them is a bad idea, regardless of whether you throw the remainder away, save them for later, or give them to someone else.

Yes, we both know that you need to take antibiotics until you have no more left in the bottle–and, obviously, there a people who ignore this. There also are even some people who will take antibiotics for viral infections, if they can get their hand on them. Such people are beyond hope, I guess.

Another drug that definitely deteroriates with time is Doxycycline. It transforms into a fairly toxic byproduct and it can do so quite rapidly at elevated temperatures.


I’ve read numerous places that all expired tetracyclines can cause renal damage.

IANAD nor have I had any medical training.
I agree with you for the most part, and like jimarnett, I think it’s wrong that the info contained in the U.S. military’s Shelf Life Extension Program is not available to the public.

However, I think that there are some legitimate reasons for not ‘sharing’ prescriptions, not the least of which is the fact that possession of certain pain relief medications by someone other than for whom they were prescribed, is against the law. (and a jailable offense in some jurisdictions. YMMV)

Is there a Dr. in the house?
Hopefully, Qagdop the Mercotan (I hope I spelled that right) will grace us with his more extensive knowledge on this subject.

My parents have been on lots of prescription drugs and Mom gave some to me when they didn’t work for her. My grandmother died with a ton of prescriptions in her name in my parents’ house. Which the hospice nurse drained down the sink. Enjoy your water.

My mother because they didn’t work for her, my father because it worked for him yet he somehow seemed to get a surplus which he offered to me and said it worked for him (welbutrin). I have learned the hard way by myself that one of my mother’s given drugs are very bad for me. But I was smart enough to realize. And realizing that you’re hallucinating isn’t that easy.

To get back to the topic, yes all of these were “expired”. I don’t believe in that for one minute.

Yes, but not as bad as doctors who will actually prescribe antibiotics for a viral infection just to get a whiny patient out of their office.

We were taught that resistant strains develop in this way. The point at which the symptoms disappear isn’t necessarily the point when the bacteria have been disposed of, they’re merely not present in noticeable amounts. Those that are left will likely be resistant to the antibiotics, but will be killed if one completed the course. While this is only from secondary school, it is in a country where the prices of antibiotics are negotiated by the government, so it doesn’t benefit the pharmaceutical companies to any great degree if an individual finishes a course of antibiotics rather than shares them.

And yet you don’t think sharing prescription drugs is a bad idea?

The system may not be perfect, but the whole idea behind prescription medication is that a doctor who knows you is advising a particular dosage of a particular drug for a particular time period. It’s not one-size-fits-all.

So if you have that bottle sitting in your medicine cabinet for two years, it’s probably safe to say that the prescription has expired, even if the drug itself is still potent.

I understand this, and I see full well that these prohibitions are needed to keep clueless people from doing clueless things with medication. But not everyone is clueless, and doctors aren’t magical wizards of some mystical, other-dimensional understanding of other people’s bodies that is utterly beyond their own comprehension. If my brother, for example, has the exact same prescription for the exact same pills–same dose, exactly to a T–and I have discontinued the treatment for whatever reason, yet I must toss those and he has to buy some more, because of a policy designed for clueless people and some other type of medicine–well, it annoys me.

I seem to remember from the death of a relative that some of the meds (especially expensive stuff–chemo drugs maybe?) could be donated to nursing homes, provided they were not out of date. That doesn’t answer the expiration date question, but there is obviously a potential savings by not wasting perfectly good medicine. Of course the drugs would, one presumes, be administered by doctors and nurses, not just passed from hand to hand.

How could the nursing homes be certain the drugs weren’t contaminated? You get them from a pharmacy, you have a certain level of confidence that they are stored correctly, weren’t spilled on the floor and scooped back into the bottle, or weren’t mixed with other pills under the wrong label. Donated out of somebody’s medicne cabinet? Not so much.

The patients are old and near death, maybe it don’t matter so much…

As for type of pill, most are numbered and that combined with the color and shape will tell you what the medicine is. But you’re right, they could have fallen on the floor, or been handled with poo hands. Maybe I’m just flat wrong, it’s the usual state of affairs.

Why people are so eager to use themselves as guinea pigs for expired drugs is beyond me. All the unknown side effects that exhaustively-tested drugs turn out to have within their expiration dates, and people want to play games beyond that time, where the drugs effectively have not been tested at all?

Yes, a number of drugs are rock-solid stable for years and years, but others are not, and you don’t know which is which. (Even the formulation matters – drug X in a plain immediate release tablet might be rock-stable, but combined with drug Y in some fancy pants modified release pellet thingie, not so much.) Having been an analytical chemist at a drug company for a long time and watching all those identified and not-identified impurity peaks getting bigger and bigger over the tested stability period of most of the products I worked with, the idea does not appeal.

There is some misinformation on the expired drugs article.

Potency is only one criteria used to establish shelf life. Another important factor is purity. A drug may have acceptable potency at the end of its shelf life, but impurities could be forming over time that have a different toxicity profile than the active ingredient. In order to extend the shelf life of a product, a drug company must prove that these new levels of impurities are safe. It is not trivial to gather this information. So, it’s not that expired drugs are necessarily unsafe, it is that they have not been proven to be safe.

In addition, it is misleading to imply that a short shelf life benefits the pharmaceutical company. With a longer shelf life, a larger batch could be made and a portion of the batch stored for several years before it is sold. This could reduce the cost of goods.


Nope. I am in fact trying wellbutrin right now, which my dad gave me. I haven’t reached the time where it should affect me, and I have been watching for side effects that Trazadone gave me (that was from mom).

I agree that prescriptions, the doctor knows you and will prescribe what they think is good for you. But, my doctor hasn’t transitioned to computers yet, pulls a big fat folder around to appointments. And when I informed her that Zoloft gave me a nervous breakdown, her literal actual response was “Whoa!”

I need a new doctor.